11/23/2011 05:21

Authorities that provide licenses and oversee surveillance of offshore sites must be separated, experts tell Knesset.
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Greater supervision must occur in offshore oil and natural gas drilling sites in order to prevent environmental crises, experts agreed at a special Knesset session held on Monday.

The forum occurred at a session of the Joint Health and Environment Committee, led by committee chairman MK Dov Henin (Hadash) and unveiling a new report about the environmental risks of deep sea drilling, drafted by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V’Din).

In previous discussions, Henin warned, the committee has revealed that there are serious dangers to human health as well as to ocean ecosystems, and currently no legislation exists regarding environmental protection of exploration systems, according to a statement.

He went on to criticize the fact that the National Infrastructure Ministry and the drilling companies are currently overseeing their own environmental surveillance, and slammed the government for failing to create any new regulation despite previous promises and relying on an “anachronistic” Petroleum Law.

“Our support of the advancement of natural gas solutions for Israel cannot conceal the problems and dangers,” Henin said.

The Adam Teva V’Din report, drafted by the organization’s air program head Dr. Arieh Wenger and legal department representative Dana Tabachnik, summates that while there are huge economic benefits to the immense discoveries of natural gas off of Israeli coasts, the production process bears risks of damage to the sea, beaches and atmosphere. The environmental costs could equal NIS 200 million in the Tamar reservoir alone.

Of this estimated total price, NIS 40 million comes from the costs of dealing with the 425,000 tons of carbon dioxide emitted annually, NIS 80 million from economic damages if a malfunction causes a methane leak, NIS 45 million for routine marine and coastal damage and NIS 43 million for additional coastal and environmental damages due to an accident.

The authors therefore recommend that a number of measures be taken to improve security, such as having the Environmental Protection Ministry require gas companies to perform intensive environmental impact assessments, as opposed to the voluntary surveys that currently occur, according to a statement from the group.

Companies responsible for exploration would also have to prepare emergency action plans for treatment and rehabilitation, should a crisis occur.

From the government’s side, the report recommends adding amendments to current legislation or creating entirely new legislation regarding environmental aspects of drilling, while also separating the bodies in charge of authorizing licenses and overseeing environmental risks – both of which currently fall under the National Infrastructure Ministry. A better option, the report argues, would be designating a body within the Environmental Protection Ministry to supervise the examinations.

The authors based their recommendations, more or less, on those of an American report that examined failures that led to last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which likewise determined that there is a conflict of interest if licensing and environmental supervision are governed by the same body, according to Adam Teva V’Din.

“The findings of the report clearly suggest that oil and gas deep sea drilling have significant ramifications on the environment,” Tabachnik said.

Her organization’s director, Amit Bracha, agreed.

“The praiseworthy production of gas can also cause damages to the environment and to gas companies in bearing the monetary compensation, as is customary in the world.”

Representatives from other green groups, like the Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI), also stressed that the current legislation regarding oil and gas exploration is the opposite of progressive.

“This is a complex industry, in the deep sea, and unfortunately, accidents do happen; we saw what happened last year in the Gulf of Mexico. Tomorrow morning, this is also liable to happen here, in Israel,” Ruti Schwartz, coordinator for energy and infrastructure at SPNI, said at the hearing.

“SPNI believes that drilling necessitates an environmental impact survey, which today is missing. There is a need for risk management report and in general to oversee what happens at sea, and not by the companies themselves, but by the state.”

In response, Rani Amir, head of the marine and coastal division of the Environmental Protection Ministry, said that his ministry has launched a tender seeking out a company to assist his office monitor environmental security at sea.

But a representative from the National Infrastructure Ministry, Mickey Gordis, contended that his ministry had the steps necessary to ensure environmental safety under control.

“We are ahead of the Environmental Protection Ministry and already have signed a contract with international consultants, who will assist us in the supervision of activities at sea. The bid ended – we chose a Dutch company that is known to get the job done,” Gordis said, according to a statement. “The knowledge already exists in the National Infrastructure Ministry and now we will receive support also from international companies, with the aim of preventing environmental crises.”

Dr. Ilan Nissim, who recently moved from the Environmental Protection Ministry to the National Infrastructure Ministry, where he is in charge of environmental protection, added that his ministry will be adopting American legislation and will also soon be implementing changes in the Petroleum Law.

An energy expert who was not present at the meeting, CEO and energy specialist at the Eco Energy consulting firm Dr. Amit Mor, stressed to The Jerusalem Post that all environmental surveillance measures instituted must be done “in close collaboration with the industry.”

“There is no doubt that Israel will need to set up environmental regulations and practices to supervise offshore oil and gas exploration and production according to best industry practices,” Mor said.